For half a century, New York City was home to an archetypical white-collar worker: he (and later she) who would perform feats of creativity, daring and endurance — to get to work.
Consider three subway strikes.
In 1966, the Transport Workers Union greeted freshly sworn-in Mayor John Lindsay by stopping all subway and bus service. Earlier strikes had hit separate parts of transit, but it was the first time the entire urban system was shuttered.
One of Lindsay’s responses was also a first: Implore people not to come to work. Lindsay knew that he was saying “literally three-quarters of the people who normally would come into Manhattan should stay home,” as he put it. And he knew that, too, “it’s very difficult for a man, when he is shaving in the morning, to look at himself and say, ‘I’m not really essential.’ ”
White-collar New Yorkers proved his point — as they ignored his efforts. Grand Central and Penn Station had to close their doors to record crowds who lined up for hours to take (non-striking) commuter rail. People drove, creating what the traffic commissioner called “the longest rush hour in the city’s history.”
It was lower-wage workers who suffered, with 75 percent of people in the garment industry, employing 175,000 New Yorkers, unable to make it in.
The strike was hardly seen as a fortuitous sign for Gotham. Rather, it was a signal that the city was ungovernable — people wouldn’t listen to the new mayor — and inhospitable to blue-collar industry.
In retrospect, though, it pointed up something hopeful. Even when Manhattan wanted them to stay home, the bankers, lawyers, advertising men, typists, secretaries and fashion designers needed Manhattan, for intense face-to-face contact with suppliers, customers, employees, employers and competitors.
Fourteen years later, this glimpse of the future had arrived. In April 1980, the TWU struck again — and Mayor Ed Koch adopted an entirely different tack. Unlike Lindsay, he cheered people as they donned sneakers with suits and skirts or biked across the Brooklyn Bridge. “We’re not going to let these bastards bring us to our knees,” he said.
Transit commuting as an aspect of white-collar identity was part of late-’80s pop-culture New York, which popularized the city for more people who wanted to achieve their dream here. In “Wall Street,” Charlie Sheen takes a subway to work. In “Working Girl,” Melanie Griffith takes the Staten Island Ferry.
The movies brought home the reality: Whatever you want, you aren’t going to get it unless you come to Manhattan — and skipping even one day could be missing your big break.
By December 2005, the third and last (so far) transit strike, things had changed. “Plenty of people clearly just stayed home,” The New York Times estimated. “In large swaths of Manhattan, it seemed as if Christmas had already arrived, with icy streets silent.”
But it was almost Christmas, and the strike lasted only three days, so it couldn’t mean much.
In the first days of the current crisis, in mid-March, the MTA, like Lindsay, asked people to stay home. This time, they did. Only “essential workers” kept coming in.
Now, the city — or, at least, sentient public and private-economy officials who can see implications, a group that notably doesn’t include the mayor — wants people to come back. Office-building managers have replanted flowers for summer and installed cheery greeters.
But people aren’t coming. Midtown is a little busier than in mid-March. It’s still empty. Yes, employers may find that it’s harder to integrate new workers into a virtual workforce or that workers become less productive over time.
Nevertheless, it’s something the city has never seen before, not on the cusp of ’70s turmoil, in 1966; not emerging from ’70s near-bankruptcy, in 1980; not even in 2005, which was too short to matter.
The white-collar workforce has proved it can skip the office not just one day, not just a week, not just two weeks, but for nearly five months now.
Five months isn’t forever, no. But it is a long time. Just as emerging city and state officials want to extract more, in higher taxes, from business and its workers, the balance of power has indefinitely changed.
This piece originallt appeared at the New York Post
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